Cognitive Russian Beet Salad

Since I’m spending a week at the IBM food truck for the SXSW festival in Austin and don’t have a kitchen to work on my own recipes, let’s turn to Watson to make us something. (If you wonder what a food truck created by IBM looks like in the field, check out this article and video on Engadget.)

When I introduced the Cognitive Cooking technology, I explained how computers could be creative, and create novel and tasty recipes. It’s worth noting that rather than making all the decisions by itself, our technology engages in a dialog with the users, with repeated back-and-forth interactions between people and the computer. Yes, a machine can be creative, but more importantly, it can help humans be more creative themselves.

Cognitive Cooking - Russian Beet Salad

The Russian beet salad that James Briscione created is a great example. We started with beet as the main ingredient, and naturally chose Russian cuisine for inspiration, due to beets’ long association with Eastern European cuisine. James decided to make a salad, because this was sufficiently vague that he could have more flexibility in the preparation and the plating. The system came back with the following list of ingredients: beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, parsley, red wine vinegar, butter, white beans, pickles, prunes, black pepper (no margarine this time ;)). Sure enough, these were all very Russian. But did they really all go well together? We certainly hadn’t seen a salad quite like this anywhere else.

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Potato Waffles with Salmon Roe and Goat Cheese

I was recently reading about potato waffles in Culinaire Saisonnier, and it sounded to me like an original, yet also forehead-slappingly obvious, alternative to potato pancakes. I started to picture a decadent waffle oozing with caviar, though down-to-earth material considerations soon had me downgrading to salmon roe. I wanted to transform the idea into a recipe quickly, instead of putting it in my to-do queue where it might have sat for years. This is also a good recipe for Valentine’s Day, your last big excuse to overindulge until next fall’s holiday season!

Salmon Roe and Potato Waffle

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Lake Ontario Wild Duck and Goose Rillettes

Lake Ontario Wild Duck and Goose RillettesBack in early December, I went to Lake Ontario for my first duck hunt with Outdoorsman Bill. This may sound like a long trip for a few small birds. After all, there are dozens of Canada geese pooping all over the lawns as nearby as Westchester. Lake Ontario, however, sees a lot of waterfowl species, and in larger amounts. Plus, shotguns aren’t allowed in Westchester (believe me, I checked). Anyway, back to Bill. Not content just hunting ducks, Bill runs a small fleet of charter boats, guides on hard water, and owns a lodge across the marina. If you’re looking for him at the inn’s restaurant, the bartender will point at the live band. While most of the other hunters are sleeping off a long day outdoors before waking up at 4 am to do it again the next day, Bill plays live music at night.

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Syracuse Wild Turkey and Brook Trout Tartare

The idea for this recipe came to me last weekend, when I went hunting for wild turkey, and came home with three brook trout. The spring turkey hunt with Wayne was rather tricky this year: the gobblers didn’t gobble, and the ones we saw didn’t show much interest in our languorous hen calls. Having read an article in New York Game and Fish about trout fishing in Ninemile Creek, I decided to try my luck there while I was in the area. What I didn’t know is that Wayne happens to be friends with one Mike Kelly, who A) wrote the article I read, B) has been fishing Ninemile Creek for most of his life, and C) was generous enough to spend his Saturday afternoon showing me around with his friend Paul, despite having already hunted turkey and caught his limit of trout earlier the same day!

Hunting and Fishing - WIld Turkey and Trout Tartare

So, while I wasn’t completely successful in my little cast-and-blast trip, I thought it would still be interesting to create a Syracusan sportsman’s perfect May appetizer, a recipe that would highlight the delicate flavors of both trout and turkey, and at the same time showcase some spring produce.

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Latvian Hare Trio, Part 3: Hare Cheese, Onion Jam, Cornichons

This curious dish — which has very little to do with actual cheese — was actually what first motivated me to start my Latvian Hare Trio. The final result may look like a traditional pâté, but the preparation is quite different. Lesley Chamberlain’s Food and Cooking of Russia and Pokhlebkin’s Cookbook of the Soviet Peoples both contain fairly similar instructions: take a hare, roast it, braise it, grind it, then cook an omelette, grind it, and mix everything together with mushrooms and butter before baking in a dish, optionally wrapped in pastry.

I found that the result of this procedure had an unpleasantly dry mouthfeel, so I made several changes to improve it. In particular, cooking the leg meat as a confit was a big improvement, and it made little sense to use the precious hare loins. I also got rid of the bizarre ground omelette and used raw eggs to bind the forcemeat like a normal person. Finally, the onion jam and cornichons bring welcome touches of sweetness and acidity.

Latvian Hare Cheese

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Kutab, Azerbaijani Stuffed Flatbread

Kutabs are among the most popular Azeri dishes, together with plov, dolma, and of course kebabs (kebabs being a distant first: virtually the only meal you’ll ever eat in a restaurant outside of Baku). A kutab — not to be confused with kutap — is essentially a lavash filled with savory stuffing while still raw, then folded in half and pan-fried. It is often served with a sprinkling of sumac on top, a red spice which imparts a lemony note.

Baku - Mugam Club Restaurant

Classic lamb kutab, as served at Mugam Club in Baku

The most common kutab fillings are ground lamb and greens, with the occasional cheese or winter squash, but you can pretty much do whatever you want, as long as the layer of stuffing remains quite thin. In addition to the four above-mentioned classics, all of which I’m presenting here with some personal tweaks, I’ve also created two new “signature” kutabs.

My first new kutab uses foie gras and pomegranate in a nod to all the Brooklyn restaurants that feature the fattened duck liver on their menus for no apparent reason other than it’s expensive and French. Baku Palace serves kutabs and foie gras as separate dishes, so why not put them together?

The second contains actual duck meat. I recently posted a duck breast kebab, and now you can use the legs (and the wings if you’d like) to make a kutab. Then you’ve got the whole bird turned into an Azeri dinner for 4!

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“Baku Palace” King Crab Salad

This recipe is inspired by the crab salad I ate at Baku Palace in Sheepshead Bay a few weeks ago (my restaurant review will come soon, but for now the place is still without power since Hurricane Sandy). The original recipe was terribly deceptive, as the dish, priced at $20 for two people, consisted of julienned cucumber, ground walnut, and… surimi.

So, in order to get rid of the feeling of being cheated, I figured I’d do my own version at home, for about the same price but with real king crab. I added a couple of elements to the recipe and I’m serving it on toasted bread, but the spirit remains the same. Compared to many other posts on my blog, this is surprisingly quick and easy to make. And still delicious!

Russian Cuisine - King Crab Salad

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Wild Boar and Porcini Pirozhki

Russian Cuisine - Wild Boar Pirozhki

Pirozhki are Russian buns, usually individual-sized and baked. As with varenyky, you can fill them with pretty much anything you want — in fact, you could even use the exact same fillings for pirozhki and varenyky. It’s not rare, however, to find more diverse recipes, some of then even in classic French cookbooks. Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire, for example, counts a dozen variations called piroguis (not to be confused with Polish pierogi), and the Larousse Gastronomique has a few similar pirojkis, many of which take some serious culinary license with the real deal.

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Varenyky, Ukrainian Ravioli

I’ve already posted a couple recipes for varenyky here and here, so I figured I’d come up with a third one — and write an entry with everything you’ll ever want to know about these Ukrainian ravioli.

Giant Pierogi - Glendon, Alberta

Picture courtesy of Fracture

But first, is it varenyky or vareniki? Well, it depends. The Russian word, вареники, should be transliterated as vareniki. But since this is in fact a Ukrainian dish, it makes sense to transliterate the Ukrainian word instead. And the Ukrainian word is… вареники. Even if you can’t read Cyrillic, you probably noticed the two are spelled the same. But they’re not pronounced the sameThe Ukrainian и is similar to the Russian ы, hence the transliteration with y’s. Big deal.

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Salad Olivier

After my recent complaints about the lack of originality of Onegin‘s salad Olivier, I figured I would bring my humble contribution to this Russian salad’s already extensive literature.

Salad Olivier can contain many ingredients, but it is at its core a potato salad with a variety of vegetables and proteins, bound by mayonnaise. It was invented in the second half of the 19th century by Chef Lucien Oliver at the restaurant Hermitage in Moscow. Although the recipe was secret, there are many versions circulating, with possible seasonal variations. Here’s one from the site of the School of Russian and Asian Studies:

Olivier Salad (“Tsarist” version)

This early recipe for Olivier salad, prepared during the height of the Hermitage restaurant’s
popularity (this recipe was written out in 1904, according to the description of one of the
restaurant’s frequent customers):

2 boiled game hens
1 boiled veal tongue
Approx 100 grams of black caviar
200 grams of fresh lettuce leaves
25 boiled crayfish or one large lobster
200-250 grams of small gherkins
Half a can of “soy kabul” (soy paste)
2 thinly sliced fresh cucumbers
100 grams of capers
5 finely chopped hard-boiled eggs

  • Provencal Sauce: beat 400 grams of olive oil with two egg yolks until light and smooth, then add French vinegar and mustard
  • Chop up all the ingredients into small cubes. Mix in the Provencal Sauce.

In A Gift to Young Housewives, Elena Molokhovets gives a very vague recipe:

Take various cooked meats: game of wild fowl; veal or beef; or boiled fish such as sturgeon,
pike or salmon.

There follows a long procession of ingredients, from cucumbers to sauerkraut, mixed with diced potatoes in a mustard sauce. This may be a lot of ingredients for a single salad, but a) that was true about the original, too, and b) the refinement was still there.

Then things started to go downhill for Mr. Olivier’s signature dish. As it transitioned from decadent high-end restaurant dish to housewives’ meal, ingredients were drastically simplified. Limited ingredient availability in the Soviet Union would go on to further aggravated the matter, turning the salad into an assembly of mostly factory-produced food items. Here’s another recipe from the site of the School of Russian and Asian Studies:

Olivier Salad (“Soviet” version)

Ingredients used in equal amounts
Potatoes (boiled and peeled)
Canned green peas
Pickles
Bologna
Hard-boiled eggs
Mayonnaise

  • Chop up all the ingredients into small cubes. Mix in mayonnaise. Add fresh dill, salt and pepper to taste, if desired.

I have to wonder what’s the scariest thing in this recipe: the canned peas that traumatized generations of children, the mystery meat bologna, or the fact that all ingredients, mayonnaise included, are used in equal amounts!

So! I wanted to create a recipe for special occasions that restored some of the splendor of the original, but without combining as many flavors. A lot of the original elements have been preserved: a full-flavored bird (a whole duck), some seafood (my favorite king crab legs), a mayo made with mustard and olive oil, and of course diced potatoes. The proportions are well balanced so that you can taste each of them. Looking back at the result now, I’m thinking I could push the envelope a little bit more by adding sautéed cubes of foie gras…

While there are a lot of steps in this recipe, each of them is easy. Since I’m using a whole duck, chances are you will not get the exact amounts of breast, legs and thighs specified below, which is fine. You can prepare the duck confit one or two days ahead, but I would try to time the breast to finish cooking just a bit before service. The rest of the salad can be assembled a few hours beforehand. The smoked salt I’m using is the Yakima applewood smoked salt by Artisan Salt Co.


Duck fabrication
Yields 6 servings + rendered fat and stock

1 duck, about 6 lb

  • Separate the wings and legs from the carcass, and reserve. Cut the breast from the carcass, trim the extra fat, and reserve.
  • You can render the extra duck fat and freeze it, and use the carcass and the neck to make duck stock.

Duck confit
Yields 6 servings

duck legs and wings (about 2 lb)
0.5 % curing salt
1.5 % smoked salt
0.25 % fennel pollen
0.5 g black pepper
1 thinly sliced garlic clove

  • Weigh the duck legs and wings, and measure the above percentages of that weight in curing salt, smoked salt, and fennel pollen. (The amount of black pepper is so small that it is more practical to measure it in grams.) Season the meat with the curing salt, smoked salt, fennel pollen, and black pepper. Place into sous-vide pouches with the garlic, and cook in a water bath at 171 F for 12 hours.
  • Let cool, then remove the skin and bones. Transfer the meat to a plastic container, add a couple tablespoons of liquid from the sous-vide pouches, and refrigerate.

Duck breast
Yields 6 servings

duck breast (about 1 1/4 lb)
1.5 % smoked salt
black pepper, ground
1 1/2 oz red wine
4 oz duck skin

  • Weigh the duck breast, and measure the above percentage of that weight in smoked salt. Cut a cross-hatch pattern on the skin of the duck breast, and sear in a very hot pan, skin side down, until brown and crispy. Remove from the pan, season with the smoked salt and black pepper, and place into a sous-vide pouch with the red wine and duck skin. Cook in a water bath at 136 F for 3 hours.
  • Let cool to room temperature and reserve.

King crab fabrication and crab oil
Yields 6 servings + some extra crab oil

2 lb cooked king crab legs, shell on
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp cognac (or Armenian brandy)
12 oz canola oil

  • Pick the meat from the crab legs and reserve in the refrigerator.
  • Cut the shell into small pieces, and sauté with the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the cognac and light with a match. Add the canola oil, simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, then remove from heat and let steep for another 15 minutes.
  • Pass through a chinois, let cool and reserve.

Mayonnaise
Yields 6 servings

1 egg yolk
1 tbsp mustard
salt
1/4 tsp piment d’espelette
6 oz crab oil
3 oz light olive oil

  • In a bowl, mix the egg yolk, mustard, salt, and piment d’espelette with a whisk.
  • Add the crab oil followed by the olive oil in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Refrigerate.

Potato salad
Yields 6 servings

4 1/2 oz frozen green peas
1 1/2 lb peeled Yukon Gold potatoes
salt
6-7 tbsp mayonnaise
king crab meat
duck confit

  • Defrost the green peas in the refrigerator for a few hours.
  • Cook the potatoes in cold salted water for about 25 minutes, until done. Drain and let cool to room temperature.
  • Cut the potatoes into medium to large dice and adjust the seasoning. In a bowl, mix the potatoes with the peas and mayonnaise. Shred the crab meat and duck confit between your fingers, mix into the salad and refrigerate.

Assembly
Yields 6 servings

Potato salad, taken out of the refrigerator 30 minutes in advance
6 eggs, hard-boiled and cooled to room temperature
duck breast, room temperature

  • Distribute the potato salad between the plates. Quarter the hard-boiled eggs and arrange around the salad.
  • Take the duck breast out of the sous-vide pouch, slice on a bias, and fan the slices on top of the salad, pouring a spoonful of cooking liquid on top of the meat on each plate.
  • Serve immediately.